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Listen: Iowa Workforce Development director describes changes coming for the state's unemployed

People attend a job fair in Newton looking for new employment
Catherine Wheeler
People attend a job fair in Newton looking for new employment.

Today, Iowa Workforce Development kicks off a new program that it hopes will help unemployed Iowans find jobs quicker. Iowa Public Radio’s Catherine Wheeler spoke with Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend about the new reemployment case management program and some changes the department is making along the way.

Beth Townsend: We have purchased some new technology that will help us do better case management and also help capture people's job search activity to make it easier for them to report their compliance. We're going to start reaching out to claimants the first week that they file for benefits to help them get registered for Iowa Works, help them to set up alerts so they can see what jobs are out there that they're qualified for, that they're interested in, figure out, what their path forward is in terms of their next job, and then helping them engage in the process of actively looking for that next position. We've also hired 18 new career navigators who will be able to provide assistance to those individuals in their job search.

Catherine Wheeler: This comes with the department changing the work search requirement numbers and also narrowing what qualifies as those actions. I was wondering if you could expand on what's going on with that.

BT: Sure. So we wanted to increase the number of job search activities that you're required to participate in. So that's going from two to four, and three of those have to actually be applying for jobs. And then we narrow the list of other work search activity, so that it's actually geared towards helping you find your next position. The whole purpose of the program is to help you find your next job. It is not to get you off of benefits. This is a shift in our paradigm that IWD, because historically, we wait until people reach out to us and ask for assistance. We're going to be more proactive and say, we have all of these resources available. We have all of these employers and jobs and jobs awaiting let's help make that connection sooner rather than later.

CW: Is this program for someone who is laid off from a restaurant in the pandemic, and they say, ‘I don’t want to be exposed to COVID this much. This isn’t what I want to get paid, and I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.’ Is this program something that can help with that at all or help them move up or get a new career?

BT: Well, I think the pandemic has brought those kinds of discussions and conversations to people's lives, brought more or faster than they might otherwise occur. But absolutely. One of the things we'll be talking to people about when we reach out to them is, do you want to stay in the same occupation? And if you don't, what are you interested in going into? Well, let's make sure that you have the education and training that you need to be able to do that. If you want to change occupations or change industries, and you need to get some training, well, let's look at the opportunities there are for training. Now full time students don't qualify for unemployment benefits. But that doesn't mean that we can't help you find a registered apprenticeship program. You know, Iowa is a national leader in terms of developing and utilizing the registered apprenticeship model. And it's a great way to get paid to get trained and learn a new skill in a new industry. So we can help you find that opportunity. People may not otherwise have known that these opportunities existed. So that's some of the awareness we want to create is, ‘Hey, it's not just, you know, you need to go take a six month training course and try to get by.’ We can get you into a registered apprenticeship program that’s going to change your life. It's going to increase your earning capacity, it's going to increase your skill level that's going to open doors for you that you didn't otherwise know existed.

CW: Do you think this gets at the deeper issues that we're seeing with the workforce shortage?

BT: Well, we hope so. We think the new technology that we purchased will also assist in the job search in meaningful job search activity, because it's going to help individuals find those jobs, oftentimes what you hear, especially if you have been in the same job for a while and haven't looked for a new job, and you know, four or five years or maybe even a little bit longer, you may not be aware of how employers recruit. And so you may not be looking at all the right places to help find those positions. And what we want to do is educate islands about all the opportunities that are available.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.